Dr. Peter, and the Hard Work of Legacy Building

September 30, 2010

Posted on thetyee.ca, September 27, 2010

Heroes are complicated and none is perfect. Case in point: the famed AIDS Diary doctor.
By Daniel Gawthrop

This month marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable event in local television news broadcasting: the debut on CBC’s Evening News of AIDS Diary, a five-part miniseries — later a weekly segment — that introduced viewers to Peter Jepson-Young, a 33-year-old medical doctor suffering from AIDS who would one day become immortalized as “Dr. Peter.”

In the risk-averse medium of mainstream television news, AIDS Diary broke new ground. Long before the 1994 Oscar nomination for producer David Paperny’s mini-documentary based on it, Dr. Peter changed how people thought about the pandemic. He not only educated viewers on the basic facts of HIV-related illness but challenged the folly of categorizing different AIDS sufferers. From homophobic discrimination to classist attitudes about intravenous drug users, the AIDS diarist debunked all the myths.

This alone would have been a worthy legacy. But since his death Dr. Peter has also transformed into a posthumous brand of sorts, entering the health care field first as a charitable foundation and then as the Dr. Peter AIDS Centre, which has become an international leader in extended comfort care.

Earlier this month, CBC Radio One’s Early Edition aired a special feature commemorating the anniversary. I missed the program, but several of my friends and relatives heard it. They were surprised that I hadn’t been interviewed, given that I was Dr. Peter’s biographer. But I wasn’t surprised. My book about Dr. Peter (Affirmation: The AIDS Odyssey of Dr. Peter, New Star Books, 1994) had been out of print for several years. Plus, the fact I’ve been working in labour communications since 2004 probably means that I’m off a lot of people’s radars these days — even at Early Edition, where I spent two different stints as a production assistant during the late-1990s.

Here’s what I would have said if Early Edition had called.

In the fall of 1992, Peter asked me to write his biography. He liked a profile I had written about him for Xtra! and my interview with him for the Georgia Straight. Plus, he wanted his life story to be told by someone who understood what it was like to grow up gay and middle class in suburban B.C. during the 1970s and 80s. (Peter and I were both raised in Nanaimo.) Sadly, he died before I could schedule our first interviews. But his partner, Andy Hiscox, gave me full access to sources, correspondence and other writings by Peter.

 

Stewards of a son’s legacy?

The most difficult moment of the project came when I sat down with Peter’s parents after they had read the manuscript. Bob and Shirley Young were predictably disturbed and upset by descriptions of sexual behaviour in the book. They didn’t know this side of their son — Peter had never discussed his gay life with them, even after sharing it with thousands of TV viewers — and here I was, rubbing their faces in it. Apart from the cruising scene that opens the book, and the several boyfriends mentioned, there was one episode that I knew would shake Peter’s mother and father to the core: the revelation that, a few months after his AIDS diagnosis in 1986, he had engaged in unsafe sex.

The incident, which occurred three years before the launch of AIDS Diary, happened during a European vacation when Peter was physically robust and regaining his confidence after a near-fatal bout of pneumocystis pneumonia. In Affirmation, the lapse in judgement is described in the context of his inability, in the early stages of illness, to accept the reality of AIDS in his life. According to the friend I interviewed who was with him in Europe, Peter expressed remorse the following day — not allowing himself to use the aggressive overtures of his older dinner host, or the amount of alcohol consumed, as excuses for his own irresponsibility. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever launched a complaint against Peter. But he was ashamed of his mistake, and he never mentioned it on AIDS Diary. If anything, Dr. Peter’s public role as an advocate of safe sex seemed part of a maturing process — call it the reflective wisdom of a dying man — and a sign he had learned from his mistake.

Nevertheless, Bob and Shirley Young wanted this passage cut from the book. They believed that disclosure of unsafe sex in Peter’s pre-AIDS Diary life would destroy the image of Dr. Peter, whose approval by the public had helped them come to terms with their son’s homosexuality. They saw Affirmation as a book that should cement Peter’s legacy as a sort of patron saint of HIV/AIDS, like a Rick Hansen or a Terry Fox. I countered that Peter, as a gay man, would never have become the public figure he did without his sexuality being a factor. Dr. Peter never claimed to be a saint, and his “European mistake” only made him more human. Still, Bob and Shirley insisted that I cut the scene. I flatly refused. Rolf Maurer of New Star Books backed me: Affirmation was published as written.

Accusations of ‘instant fame’

Neither Dr. Peter’s image nor his legacy suffered from my decision. Apart from a couple of predictably hysterical, right-wing screeds (Doug Collins in the North Shore News, another homophobe in the now-defunct BC Report), reviewers were sympathetic to Peter’s life story and did not judge him for a single lapse. Affirmation sold out its first printing and went into a second. The Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation took several copies for fundraising events, educational programs and the Dr. Peter Centre library. In 2006, the Vancouver Sun named Affirmation one of the top eight “must read” books about AIDS — even though it was already out of print. Clearly, Dr. Peter was ahead of the curve. Even the first publisher I had approached with a proposal (who sat on Affirmation for three months before rejecting it) would eventually fess up that his firm had “blown it” by giving the book a pass.

The only real challenge to Dr. Peter’s legacy, if there was one, came from gay activist critics in the early days. When he first appeared as the host of AIDS Diary, some people complained about Peter’s instant fame as “the human face” of AIDS. Ever since the early, brutal years of the pandemic, gay men like Kevin Brown of the Vancouver Persons With AIDS Society had been doing all the grunt work: lobbying governments for drugs and anti-discrimination legislation, scraping for scarce advocacy and support funds, and struggling for media coverage. But their “human faces” had barely registered with the public.

Once Dr. Peter’s impact on the public discourse around HIV issues began to be felt, and it was clear that AIDS Diary was changing attitudes for the better, most of the gay community embraced him. But there was still a hard core of activists who saw Peter as piggybacking on others whose hard work had secured the approval of his drugs years earlier — and whose advocacy efforts had paved the way for his own AIDS celebrity. When Peter expressed, as his dying wish, that a new foundation be formed in his name to raise money for AIDS “comfort care,” some of these men privately screamed: “Duplication of services!”

They were wrong, of course. Arn Schilder of the PWA Society and Howard Engel of AIDS Vancouver understood Peter’s importance to the overall AIDS fabric in B.C. Although personally they shared some of the activist view of Peter, they also knew that after his death — once the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation was looking to establish its place in local health care delivery — the AIDS community would have to work with it. For his part, Andy Hiscox wisely decided that the foundation would not lift a finger without first consulting the frontline HIV/AIDS organizations.

To this day, I am proud to have arranged and attended the first meeting between these three men, for it broke the ice and immediately established the bona fides of everyone involved. Once it was clear that the Dr. Peter Centre’s aim was to provide a range of in-patient and day-patient services for everyone who needed them — including IV drug users from the Downtown Eastside, by far the most stigmatized HIV/AIDS-infected population in the city — there was nothing to disagree about. Dr. Peter’s legacy was rightfully secured, both for the general public and for all the local stakeholders in HIV/AIDS health care delivery. Today, it’s all good.

A room with his name on it

As with so many things about Dr. Peter, there is a lighter side to the legacy. Peter was something of a jock when healthy, and always had a thing for male athletes and their sweaty rituals. Long after his death, when the Dr. Peter Centre was establishing its donor base, the gay hockey team I co-founded, the Cutting Edges, chose the foundation as its charity. I was out of the country when the team presented executive director Maxine Davis with a cheque for $10,000. But I appreciated the irony — as I’m sure Peter would have — that Davis thanked us by unveiling a new feature in the centre: the Cutting Edges locker room.

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